Another Anniversary Top Ten List

Today is the Fifth Anniversary of Mirror With Clouds and to celebrate, I’m posting my top ten short stories of 2016 with some of my favorite quotations underneath the title (and then my own comments in red):

10.) Brooklyns Lose – William Heuman

He didn’t put Kluszewski on, neither,” this guy says grinning. “Klu hit it an’ kept goin’.”

This guy jokes, yet. This is a time for jokes when you have a ball game sewed up eight-to-seven in the ninth, and you lose it with a home-run ball.

I look out the window, and the guy says, “So tomorrow’s another day.”

I don’t even look at him. That kind of guy I don’t look at.

I enjoyed the baseball stories I read this year, and while there may have been other stories with more literary merit in this category, I just couldn’t help finding this one my favorite of the bunch – mostly for its fantastic use of Brooklyn dialect.

 

 

9.) Old Red – Caroline Gordon

Ah, a stouthearted one, Mary! She had never given up hope of changing him, of making him over into the man she thought he ought to be. Time and again she almost had him. And there were long periods, of course, during which he had been worn down by the conflict, one spring when he himself said, when she had told all the neighbors, that he was too old now to go fishing anymore….But he had made a comeback. She had had to resort to stratagem. His lips curved in a smile, remembering the trick.

Caroline Gordon and her recurring character Aleck Maury was one of the more pleasant discoveries I made this year.

 

 

8.) Double Birthday – Willa Cather

“…this is the only spot I know in the world that is before-the-war. You’ve got a period shut up in here; the last ten years of one century, and the first ten years of another. Sitting here, I don’t believe in aeroplanes, or jazz, or Cubists. My father is nearly as old as Doctor Englehardt, and we never buy anything new; yet we haven’t kept it out…”

Willa Cather puts another great spin on the early Twentieth Century – a time period that continues to fascinate me.

 

 

7.) Homeland – Barbara Kingsolver

My great-grandmother belonged to the Bird Clan. Hers was one of the fugitive bands of Cherokee who resisted capture in the year that General Winfield Scott was in charge of prodding the forest people from their beds and removing them westward. Those few who escaped his notice moved like wildcat families through the Carolina mountains…

Known (to me) for her novel The Poisonwood Bible, this was the first of Kentucky author Barbara Kingsolver’s work that I’ve read. Another story is included in Deal Me In2017.

 

 

6.) The Life You Save May Be Your Own – Flannery O’Connor

Every now and then her placid expression was changed by a sly isolated little thought like a shoot of green in the desert.

Technically, I didn’t read this story this year. I read it a couple of years ago; however, Jay selected it for a great guest post. I couldn’t let a technicality like that keep me from including a Flannery O’Connor story in my top ten list.

 

5.) Christmas Gift – Robert Penn Warren

The live cigarette, burned almost to the very end, hung at the corner of the boy’s lips, glowing fitfully and faintly with his speech. It hung there, untouched by his hands, which were thrust under the rug. He no longer drew the smoke in; it seemed to seep in without conscious effort on his part, drifting from his nostrils thinly with his breath.

A great author who happens to be from Kentucky brings tobacco and cigarette smoking to new literary heights.

 

 

4.) The Turkey Season – Alice Munro

There was the Turkey Barn, on the edge of a white field, with a row of big pine trees behind it, and always, no matter how cold and still it was, these trees were lifting their branches and sighing and straining. It seems unlikely that on my way to the Turkey Barn, for an hour of gutting turkeys, I should have experienced such a sense of promise and at the same time of perfect, impenetrable mystery in the universe, but I did.

This is the only story that wasn’t included in my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. I read an Alice Munro story each month this year and “The Turkey Season” (I read it for April) jumped out as a favorite early on. An older female protagonist looks back at a time when she was younger. While this concept appears to be a staple of Munro’s stories, this story has a slightly more positive tone than others.

 

 

3.) A Father’s Story – Andre Dubus

And He says: I am a Father too.

Yes, I say, as You are a Son Whom this morning I will receive; unless You kill me on the way to church, then I trust You will receive me. And as a Son You made Your plea.

Yes, He says, but I would not lift the cup.

I had not heard of Andre Dubus prior to putting this story on my list for 2016, but the raw spirituality made it a favorite.

 

 

2.) The Whore’s Child – Richard Russo

“Are we ever going to meet the father?” one student wanted to know. “I mean, she yearns for him and he gets compared to Christ, but we never see him directly. We’re, like, told how to feel about him. If he doesn’t ever show up, I’m going to feel cheated.”

Sister Ursula dutifully noted this criticism, but you had only to look at the old woman to know that the father was not going to show up. Anybody who felt cheated by this could just join the club.

I rediscovered Richard Russo with this story. The structure is both unique and perfect. I want to read more of his short stories in 2017.

 

 

1.) The Diary of Adam and Eve – Mark Twain

Wheresoever she was, there was Eden.

I admit that there is very little separating my top 4 stories, but I was so surprised at Mark Twain’s ability to combine satire and sentiment in this story that it’s remained my favorite since I read it back in February.

“The Eye” – The Alice Munro Story of the Month: December

It’s the final installment of 2016’s The Alice Munro Story of the Month and I selected one of her shorter short stories “The Eye” from her collection Family Furnishing Selected Stories, 1995-2014.

An unnamed female child tells the story of her babysitter, Sadie, in a flashback of sorts. Sadie is ultimately killed by a car and when the narrator attends the funeral (still as a child), she swears to herself that she sees Sadie’s eyelid move while she views her body in the casket. She feels its a sign meant just for her.

The self-imposed isolation of the child when she refuses to tell any of the adults about what she saw is not an unfamiliar theme to Munro readers. Neither is the looking back from adulthood. In the case of “The Eye”, there is a little sadness at what growing up really means:

Long, long afterwards, when I was not at all interested in any unnatural display, I still had it in my mind that such a thing had happened. I just believed it easily, the way you might believe and in fact remember that you once had another set of teeth, now vanished but real in spite of that. Until one day, one day when I may even have been in my teens, I knew with a dim sort of hole in my insides that now I didn’t believe it anymore.

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“Amundsen”-The Alice Munro Story of the Month: November

The building, the trees, the lake, could never again be the same to me as they were on that first day, when I was caught by their mystery and authority. On that day I had believed myself invisible. Now it seemed as if that was never true.

There’s the teacher. What’s she up to?

She’s looking at the lake.

What for?

Nothing better to do.

Some people are lucky.

Alice Munro’s story “Amundsen” reminds me some of her story “The Turkey Season” – at least in tone, feel and atmosphere if not in plot.

The unnamed female narrator arrives at a sanatorium (or San) outside the town of Amundsen (in Canada) to live there as a teacher for the children suffering from tuberculosis. I am not certain of the timeframe of the story but it’s during the last year of “the war”. I’m going to guess that this is a reference to World War II and the setting is the 1940’s.

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She arrives sometime in winter in awe of the frozen lake and woods surrounding the “San.” Like “The Turkey Season”, a coldness prevails throughout the story with significant attention paid to the snow, the temperature of the school room, when a heater is needed and when one isn’t available. Unlike “The Turkey Season”, which contains some warmth hidden beneath the layer of cold, “Amundsen” remains cold in tone and atmosphere until the end even when spring bursts forth.

Most of this coldness stems from the teacher’s relationship with the doctor of the San who has hired her. He leaves her at the train station in the “lady’s waiting room” with a lack of warmth that transcends any physical temperature.

This story is included in Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995 – 2015 which I borrowed from my public library.

“Jakarta”-The Alice Munro Story of the Month: October

He travels a thought that has to do with staying here, with listening to Sonje talk about Jakarta while the wind blows sand off the dunes.

A thought that has to do with not having to go on, to go home.

Alice Munro tends to use a technique in her stories that I’m just now starting to realize. When an aging or elderly person looks back on life, other authors usually start with the elderly person and flash back to their youth. Munro starts with youth and flashes forward to the elderly person. Her use of this technique is brilliant in her short story “Jakarta”.

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The story starts with Kath and Sonje, two young wives living among a beach community somewhere on the west coast of Canada. My guess is that it is sometime in the late 1960’s. Thoughts of marriage and being a wife and mother are sometimes exchanged verbally and sometimes not. As with most of Munro’s female characters of which I’ve read, married life and motherhood are not necessarily berrated but are usually accompanied by feelings of entrapment. Briefly mentioned is Kath’s conservative husband, Kent and Sonje’s charisamatic leftist husband, Cottar.

Then Munro does the flash forward thing to Kent as an elderly man visiting the also elderly Sonje. Kent has been divorced from Kath for years and on his third much younger wife. Sonje stayed married to Cottar. It has been several years since Sonje received word that Cottar had died while in Jakarta.

Munro gives us more flash backs to parties on the beach during their younger days but continues to focus on Kent’s and Sonje’s visit. It’s difficult to determine what’s the present. One might automatically assume the older characters are in the present but that’s not the feel Munro gives. She can time-travel better than many science fiction writers.

Then, in an odd twist, Sonje throws out the idea that she thinks Cottar faked his death and is still alive in Jakarta. For other authors, this could turn the story into a John Le Carre novel; however, as I’ve come to expect with Munro, she turns this idea into a perfectly normal theory for Sonje to have. Yes, Kent seems to think that Sonje may have a screw loose but Munro, in spite of writing from Kent’s point of view, wonderfully throws her sympathies toward Sonje and the love she truly has for her husband. And this reader’s sympathies went to Sonje, too.

This story is included in Alice Munro’s collection Family Furnishings: Selected Stories 1995 – 2014 which I borrowed from my public library.

 

“Friend of My Youth”- The Alice Munro Story of the Month: September

In Alice Munro’s short story “Friend of My Youth”, one wonders whether the protagonist, Flora, is stronger than it may appear or a complete door mat for people to walk over. After two betrayals by the same man, she continues to live with him and his wife on Flora’s own farm and continues to put on a smile. A smile that is suppose to reflect the beliefs of her “weird religion”, a Cameronian Presbyterian sect.

The unique aspect to this story’s structure comes in the way it is told or rather retold. The daughter of a teacher friend that lived with Flora narrates the story as her mother told it to her. This narration “once removed” gives the story an historical effect. Something that makes Flora’s story seem more of a story of women through the ages as opposed to an isolated incident.  This also provides a way for the reader to understand Flora’s plight even if Flora herself doesn’t.

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And as usual, Alice Munro, handles the story-telling masterfully. When the second wife, takes Flora’s cherished few books and burns them, my blood boiled even if Flora’s didn’t:

She sees the smoke rise out of the incinerator in the yard, where her books are burning. Those smelly old books, as Audrey has called them. Words and pages, the ominous dark spines. The elect, the damned, the slim hopes, the mighty torments – up in smoke.  There was the ending.

This story is included in Alice Munro’s collection Carried Away: A Selection of Stories that I’ve borrowed from my public library.

“Carried Away” – The Alice Munro Story of the Month: August

The town was full of the smell of horses. As evening came on, big blinkered horses with feathered hooves pulled the sleighs across the bridge, past the hotel, beyond the street lights, down the dark side of the roads. Somewhere out in the country they would lose the sound of each other’s bells.

Alice Munro’s short story “Carried Away” provides an interesting question. Is it a ghost story? An unexplained incongruity in the story makes the reader wonder if ghosts are the best explanation. If not ghosts, then perhaps a dream? Thinking about this was fascinating.

It also contains one of the most gruesome scenes I’ve read in a while.

At the same time, “Carried Away” isn’t simply ghosts, dreams or gore. Like the other Alice Munro stories I’ve read, the female protagonist seems to exist in a self-imposed isolation. She lives with what I would call a mild state of despair. We don’t know all of the details but a failed relationship inspires Louisa to move to her current home town to be a librarian; however, it seems like this despair is the price she pays for being who she is and for standing on her own two feet. It also seems a price she is willing to pay.

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“Carried Away” has a more winding plot than the other Munro stories I’ve read. It starts with Louisa receiving letters from a soldier in Europe during World War I. He knows who she is but, being new to the town, she is unable to place his face. This inability to know him goes on for longer than one might possibly think; however, I found this aspect of the story powerful. The winding part of the plot involves what happens to both characters for the next several decades.

If you like ghost stories, read “Carried Away” and see what you think. If you like gruesome, read this and I don’t think you will be disappointed.

This story is included in the collection Carried Away: A Selection of Stories that  I borrowed from my public library.

Mary Gordon: Mrs. Cassidy’s Last Year (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 31)

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She sat chewing, looking at the television. What was that look in her eyes now? Why did he want to call it wickedness? Because it was blank and hateful. Because there was no light. Eyes should have light. There should be something behind them. That was dangerous, nothing behind her eyes but hate. Sullen like a bull kept from a cow.

Mary Gordon’s short story “Mrs. Cassidy’s Last Year” is the second story I’ve read this year involving Alzheimer’s Disease. The first one was Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” which I read in March. While most readers (including myself) would consider Munro’s to be the better written story, Gordon’s comes from a slightly different perspective which makes it just as intriguing.

The Best American Catholic Short Stories: A Sheed & Ward Collection

Mr. Cassidy, in his old age, deals with a wife who’s personality has drastically changed. She constantly swears at him and becomes violent; however, decades ago, he promised – at her request- to let her die in her own bed, to never let “them” take her away. Mr. Cassidy wants to honor his promise much to the dismay of his son who accuses his father of “playing God”.

“Mrs. Cassidy’s Last Year” has no resolution which makes me think more of Munro’s story. “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” actually has a resolution and it’s a surprisingly happy one given the topic. I find the comparison interesting.

I read “Mrs. Cassidy’s Last Year” this week when I selected the Seven of Clubs for Week 31 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. It’s included in my copy of The Best American Catholic Short Stories edited by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.